Years ago, a friend that I only knew on Facebook, but a great friend nonetheless, went through the shock of her brother passing, unexpectedly. In sympathy, I wrote a poem imagining their relationship, a desperate attempt to console. We grew even closer after that. Some time later, she asked me to write something for a friend of hers that was in the final stages of cancer, released to hospice, time short. I was daunted, not knowing this other friend, but willing to do what I could. I wrote this piece as universally as possible, to encompass all beliefs, in a frenzied session that lasted into the wee hours. I never changed a word after that night, sending it to my friend, who shared it with her friend, this vague person in the midst of terribleness. My friend said her friend greatly appreciated the effort, but I honestly think there was more kindness than comfort in the whole situation, on all parts. Perhaps this is how all decent things are resolved.
After the eventual passing, my friend encouraged me to share my story with others. I hadn’t even thought of doing such. It was a tiny gift that was no longer mine, and a part of me felt that using the story in any other way somehow lessened the original intention. I couldn’t do it. The words of the story quietly slept in a folder, nestled among other stories that have only been seen by a few.
Then my friend (our friend, to many of you who read this blog) Terry, who created the wonderful, life-affirming blog world of “Spearfruit”, reached a point in his own journey with cancer where a certain question was finally being answered. It would not be long. From that point on, I would open the quiet folder, every day, and wonder. Should I share this with Terry? Is it my place? Should these words be coming from me rather than his own family, his Gary? Then I would close the folder, unresolved.
I waited too long, and the decision was made for me.
When I learned of Terry’s passing on another blog, in a post written by Osyth at “Half Baked in Paradise”, I somewhat lost it, babbling in a rambling comment about something I should have done and I didn’t. Osyth, as good friends do, quietly took me offline and offered her hand and her heart and her shoulder. I sent the story to her. She sent her sagely-kind advice back to me, paraphrased thusly: Yes, you should have shared this with Terry. But your hesitation is understandable, as we’re just humans fumbling to do the right thing and sometimes we don’t. Still, you need to get the story out, because we all know a Terry and we could all easily be a Terry and every Terry welcomes solace when a question finally gets an answer.
So, here is the story, inspired by someone I never knew and enrichened by someone I wish I had known better.
I can hear music playing, somewhere, muddled, faint then strong
I shouldn’t be hearing this, not where I am, not this place. It’s always so quiet, whispered
Gentle sounds as warm-eyed people go about doing what must be done
Softly checking machines and making notes, discussing
Maybe this will help, maybe that, have we tried the new thing
Hushed, their words, musn’t alarm the patient, calm, calm
As if I hadn’t already picked up the newspaper on the doorstep, read it, knew
Still, this music, that I didn’t know, but it seemed important, alluring
So I open my eyes, the eyes that I close more often lately, because I need more rest,
More escape, for now, more dreams of better, more everything
I am in a room of some kind, a large one it seems, I sense the expanse
It’s also very dark, very vaguely familiar, been in one of these a time or two
I can’t see the edges of the room, too dim, above me the hint of cavernous openness
In front of me, the wall seems temporary, whispery swaying, maybe curtains,
Caressing the wooden floor below with their tasseled feet
Wait, am I on a…
“Stage,” clarifies a man to my left, one who apparently brought along a bit more light,
Revealing his curious outfit, his grand manner as he crosses the boards,
Presenting me with a booklet, a program, good paper stock, gilt and ornate
You exclaims the cover, bold letters, with two littler friends below it
“I don’t understand”
“In time,” says the man, who is no longer beside me, moving toward the whispery wall,
Reaching for a golden rope, tugging it with admirable flourish
Whispering becomes whisking and the curtain halves part company,
Each of them skittering away to hidden places where they await the next development,
Revealing the rest of a huge theater, rows of seats stretching backwards, tiered
(Old theater, fancy theater, velvet upholstery, carved columns line the walls, memories live here)
There is a single spotlight on a single chair, the rest of the seats in dimness.
“For you,” announces the man, spreading his arm.
“Please. We’re almost ready to start.”
And before I can think on it further, I am in that chair, after a fluttery rush of movement, a whiff of cinnamon, the delicate tinkle of a wind chime. Facing the stage, where a pure-white screen is being lowered behind a woman, her hair in a timeless bun, standing behind a bulky tri-pod camera, the old-fashioned kind, rusted, speaking of sepia and dust. The woman smiles briefly and then lowers her head behind the camera box.
The first flash startles me, briefly, tiny unexpectedness. The light spills over me, warm, vanilla, a splash of wind carrying faint voices. A second burst, from the back of the camera, tosses a glittering blur onto the white screen, the glitter dimming, shifting and forming the just-taken photograph. But it isn’t of me.
I can barely breathe. “Granny…”
The camera flashes again, then again, until the sounds become a whir, the warm wind gently buffeting me, the screen filling with images from long-ago scrapbooks and gold-framed portraits lining musty hallways of houses no more. Faces of yesteryear, wrinkled snapshots and formal sittings and military photos and wedding pictures of glowing, beribboned brides. Faces I hadn’t seen in so long.
“All the people I’ve lost,” I sigh.
“No,” whispers the man, bending to my ear. “All of the people you’re about to find.”
My throat tightened. “I don’t know if I’m ready for that. I don’t know if I believe in that. Sometimes I’ve questioned-“
The man stands back up, patting my shoulder. “Now is not the time for readiness and questions. It is a time for acceptance and reflection, for looking backward as you look forward. It is a time to cherish.
“But I’m not ready to GO!”
“You aren’t going anywhere. Not for a while.” With that, the camera goes silent, flashes and wind fading. The enormous canvas is crammed with images, billowing slightly. Then one of the pictures vanishes, with a tiny pop. Slight movement off to my side, and I glance in that direction. Someone is now sitting a few seats away. Then another pop, and someone is on my other side. Both of my relatives are gazing at me with such love that my muscles relax, the warmth flowing into me, redefining me.
Within minutes, the canvas is blank again, and I am sitting in a sea of that warmth, of family and friends who had moved on before me.
“Come,” says the man, taking my hand. “Time for Act Two.”
I rise to join him, then pause. “But what about all these people? I can’t leave them.”
“They’re not going anywhere. You’ll have time to visit with them in a bit.”
I still don’t move. “But I don’t have all that much time LEFT. Don’t you understand that?”
He turns to look at me again. “Of course I understand that. What you may not realize is that you have plenty of time to do what you need to do. Well, the important things that you need to do. So many people never figure out that important part.” He turns away once more. “Come, these folks paid good money for these seats and we shouldn’t be holding up the show.”
“They paid money for-“
He waves his other hand over his head in a dismissive manner as he walked toward the steps to the stage. “I’m kidding. Just one of those inside jokes in this business.”
I run to catch up, slipping beside him as we navigate the stairs. “What business are you in? Are you… is there really… are you God? Maybe an angel? Something like that?”
He laughs in a hearty manner which leaves it unclear if he thought it was preposterous that I would think he might be any one of those things. He faces me once again at the top of the stairs. “I am only here because of the people who want me here. I’m your guide, to them.”
“What people are you talking about?”
He gently leads me to the front of the stage, and we gaze down on the gold-tinged shimmers of Family Past. “Those are some of your people, of course.” (Great-aunts rocking on a side porch, picnics at parks long forgotten, the cousin you could tell anything and never worry, the reassuring constancy of a certain homemade cherry pie, lemonade with juicy pulp on a summer afternoon, secret crushes as you run through a dusk studded with fireflies, jokes on the sly, soft songs on a quiet radio at midnight.) “And now let’s meet the rest.”
The doors to the theater fly open, and a chattering crowd begins pouring in, laughing and jostling as they walk down the aisles, selecting seats, seats that quickly fill until there are very few velvet-covered options left. Still they come, a constant stream, stepping through the doorway in pairs, their silhouettes briefly blocking the sunshine as each couple enters. Flickering light, brief frames like a slowed-down movie reel, glimpses behind them of even more people, stretching down the road to tiny head-dots in the distance, all coming this way. Many of them family, some of them not, some of them only vaguely familiar, wisps of something that happened once.
I turn to the man. “I don’t understand. Why are they here?”
“Because you are.” He made another flourish with his arm. (We need more grand gestures, don’t you think? We have minimized so many things in our lives.) “These are the people you have touched with your life. And they are here to make sure that you knew that.” He gives me the thinnest hint of a smile, then he turns to go.
“Wait! You can’t leave me.” (Questions. I always had so many unanswered questions.)
He pauses and turns back. “But I must. My part is done. Now it is your turn.”
“But what am I supposed to do?”
“You can do whatever you want. This is your show. Sing a song. Do a tap dance. Tell a story about the first time you realized that doing the right thing can be hard but in the end-”
“But I can’t sing. And I can’t dance. And I can’t-”
He is suddenly beside me again, one hand on each of my shoulders, forcing me to focus on his face. “Yes, you can. You can do anything now. The baggage is gone. The fear and the worry and the anxiety and anything else that weighed you down, it’s gone, it’s dissipated, it no longer matters. There is only one thing that is a constant in everyone’s life, that everyone must have, and that everyone must give away, so they can get more back.”
“I don’t know what that might be.” (Candlelight, moonlight, a baby’s first steps, a kiss, the longing of absence, a face on the pillow beside you in the morning, a never-sent poem found in a drawer, the smell of a discarded shirt, the acceptance of flaws, shared rings, comfortable silence between two as the waves lap the shore, laughter with wine, a book passed from hand to hand, a phone call that is answered at 2am, a card in the mailbox, a hand holding your still one while machines beep, a note tucked into the book when it is passed back, phrases that make the three of you laugh with every repetition, a determination to always be there, a scribbled paragraph in a yearbook, pictures in a dusty box, the realization that a chance meeting has just changed everything.)
Then I did know. “Love.”
He smiles, wider this time. “Of course. Love. Now you need to get out there and get you some.” Then he turns for a final time and walks to the back of the stage, joining hands with the patiently-waiting photographer I had forgotten about, but he clearly hasn’t, and they disappear into the darkness.
I turn to the front of the stage, and the light, hesitating briefly, my eyes darting from one face to another, all my family, my friends, my loves. And then and I begin to sing…
Final Note: Please share this with anyone you know who might get a wee bit of comfort from the words. This is no longer my story. This is ours.
Categories: The Journey